9:30am EST, live in the US on Setanta
Last 4 head-to-head:
0-1 United (h) 12.16.07
0-1 United (h) 03.03.07
0-2 United (a) 10.22.06
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.18.06
Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Reading (h); 1-0 Inter (a); 3-0 Newcastle (h)
United: 2-0 Bolton (h); 1-0 Derby (a); 0-1 Pompey (h)
Liverpool: Torres 20; Gerrard 10; Babel 4; Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin 3; Alonso, Crouch 2; Aurelio, Hyypia, Mascherano, Pennant, Sissoko 1
United: Ronaldo 24; Tevez 11; Rooney 8; Saha 5; Ferdinand, Giggs, Nani 2; Carrick, Hargreaves, Park, Scholes, Vidic 1
Referee: Steve Bennett
Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
Once again, I’m guessing a 4-2-3-1, given that Liverpool’s used that formation in the last seven matches (eight if you don’t count Barnsley). I’ve little need to rehash the positives, but Alonso sums it up nicely on the official site today, unequivocally stating, “We are playing our best football of the season." Alonso, much like Benitez, doesn’t make statements like that lightly, and knowing how well Liverpool played in August and September, his outlook is significant.
I imagine it will be very similar to the squad that went out against Inter, with Alonso for Lucas the only obvious difference, which would make Hyypia for Arbeloa the lone change from the Reading match. The only other change I think possible would be Riise instead of Aurelio, given some of his past heroics versus United, but Aurelio’s been better when he’s been fit and Riise certainly hasn’t had a season to write home about.
With the way Liverpool has been playing, it’s little surprise that Torres and Gerrard will be crucial on Sunday. Liverpool hasn’t beaten United in the league under Benitez, and hasn’t scored at Old Trafford since O’Shea put one in his own net in 2004. But both Gerrard and Torres are tallying regularly of late and have been effective on the counter. The fast-paced attack that’s come with this formation will be essential, as it’s similar to the way United can strike out of the blue. And Liverpool will need the goals; not only is the match at Old Trafford, but there’s a long history of United nicking at least one against Liverpool.
The other key will be the battle between Mascherano and Ronaldo, as it was in the last match between the two sides. At this point, Torres is Ronaldo’s only competition for player of the season; Ronaldo has simply been lights out so far. As much as I dislike the player, both for whom he plays for and how he presents himself, he’s the best in the world at the moment. There’s mountains of statistics to point out, including the number of spectacular free kick goals, but the fact that he’s got 24 in the league as a midfielder is amazing in and of itself.
But Mascherano did excellently against Ronaldo in the first meeting this season, and there’s no one else I’d rather have as holding midfielder against the likes of United. He has the speed to catch and keep up with United’s attackers, even Ronaldo, while the addition of Alonso in midfield will give Mascherano license to chase the ball, and United’s players, all over the pitch. But he must get help from the full backs, who’ll have to keep Ronaldo (and either Giggs or Nani) from exploiting gaps on the flanks (another reason I think it’ll be Aurelio over Riise).
In the same vein, the defense has to be better. All too often of late, we’ve complained about set piece defense (against Reading, Bolton, and Boro, just to name a few), while it was a goal from a corner that gave United the win at Anfield in December. But like at the San Siro, Liverpool’s players have the potential to raise their game for a huge match, and it’s part of the reason I’m hoping for the same back line that went out against Inter. It’ll be essential for Liverpool to treat this all-important match like those massive one-off European nights.
In team news, both Ferdinand and Van der Sar could miss out through back injury. I doubt they’ll rush Van der Sar back with Kuszczak having returned from suspension, but the loss of Ferdinand could be massive for United. Rio did a very good job on Torres in the match at Anfield, and his replacement would be the seldom-used Gerald Pique. But knowing United, chances are Rio will make a miraculous recovery.
While I don’t honestly believe Liverpool has any feasible shot at the title, I’ve been pleased to see that talk reappear for the first time in over 4 months. It’s a sign of the confidence the team has, and the confidence of the manager in the team, which is warmly welcomed after the off field “crisis” and the loss of form over the winter.
This is football; anything is possible over the last 8 games. But it won’t be viable in the slightest if Liverpool can’t finally get one over on their bitter rivals from down the M62.